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    A love affair with the automat

    I grew up in the South, so I have no first-hand knowledge of dropping a coin in an automat slot, sliding open the door and retrieving a beef pot pie or piece of cake. My auction buddy Janet, who grew up in Brooklyn, remembered these restaurants.

    automatbook200So when we came across a book about Horn & Hardart’s automats at an auction recently, we were both intrigued. The book was co-written by the great-granddaughter of cofounder Frank Hardart. The 2002 book, “The Automat: The History, Recipes and Allure of Horn & Hardart’s Masterpiece,” included the history of the automat (founded by Hardart and Joseph V. Horn), photos, recipes (cream spinach, baked beans, pumpkin pie) and more.

    Janet went to her first automat when she was in elementary school in the 1960s. It was in Manhattan – an adventure for a young girl – she chose her food herself, and she was eating in the same place as many business people (several websites noted that class was indistinct inside the restaurants – the poor sat next to the well-to-do). She felt “grown up,” she said.

    “You’d feed a coin into the machine, open the little door and there’d be a sandwich on a plate. You’d take it out and shut the door,” she said. “You’d see ladies in uniforms with hair nets in the back.”

    Eating at an automat was a novelty, Janet noted, because families did not eat out much in those days.  “It was really good food. It was early fast food, except homemade.”

    The first automat I ever saw was in the 1962 movie A Touch of Mink” with Doris Day and Cary Grant. She had bought what looked like a pot pie and was sitting at a table to eat when Gig Young dropped by on an errand from his friend Grant. From the automat kitchen, her roommate – played by Audrey Meadows – watched as Day headed outside with Young. There on the counter in front of her were a row of small tossed salads ready to be placed in the clear slots. 


    The first Horn & Hardart automat opened in Philadelphia in 1902 not far from Independence Hall, and in Manhattan in 1912, according to a 2001 article in the Smithsonian Magazine. The food was prepared in assembly-line kitchens with fresh ingredients. The automats had strict policies: No food could be left overnight (surplus food was taken to ““day-old shops” for resale); coffee was prepared fresh every 20 minutes; managers had a rule book on how to handle the menu items.

    Automats were very popular, inspiring songs, showing up in movies and attracting stars for their down-home meals. All of the food was meticulously prepared, and the coffee was legendary.

    Irving Berlin wrote a song about the coffee called “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee,” which became the restaurant’s theme song. It was featured in the 1932 musical “Face the Music.”


    Edward Hopper, an American realist painter and printmaker, created “The Automat” in 1927, showing a woman at a table all alone in an automat.

    By the 1970s, automats were mostly a thing of the past, overtaken by burger restaurants and families moving to the suburbs. The last one closed in Philadelphia in 1990 and in New York a year later.

    But they have not disappeared completely: The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has installed a 35-foot section of the original 1902 Philadelphia automat.

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